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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Chamber Music
CD1 [47:54]
Viola Sonata op. 53 (1915) [25:59]
Paysages et Marines for piano, flute, clarinet, two violins, viola and cello (1915) [21:13]
CD2 [59:21]
L'Ancienne maison de campagne - suite for piano op. 124 (1932-33) [28:53]
Quatre Nouvelles Sonatines op. 87 (1924) [3:55 + 7:04 + 7:06 + 6:30]
Danse lente op. 163 No. 2 (1937) [3:24]
CD3 [69:46]
L'Album de Lilian, première et deuxième series for piano, soprano and flute (139) and piano, flute, ondes martenot and harpsichord (140) opp. 139, 149 (1934, 1935) [18:22 + 28:48]
Vers le soleil - seven monodies for Ondes Martenot op. 174 (1939) [12:43]
Stèle funéraire for three flutes à tour de rôle Op. 224 (1950) [7:59]
Christophe Keller (piano)
Daniel Cholette (piano and harpsichord); Patrick Demenga (cello); Alexandru Gavrilovici (violin); Urs Walker (violin); Kathrin Graf (soprano); Kiyoshi Kasai (flute); Philippe Racine (flute); Christoph Schiller (viola); Elmar Schmid (clarinet); Christine Simonin (ondes martenot).
rec. Zürich, Nov 1988 (CD1); Jan 1989 (CD2); March 1989 (CD3). DDD. stereo
ACCORD 465 894-2 [3CDs: 47:54 + 59:21 + 69:46]


Perhaps dreams - restful and restless - are common to all music. Certainly they play a crucial part in Koechlin's creative apparatus.
 
Subtle, imbued with tragic feeling as befits the time of its composition, is Koechlin's potently charged Viola Sonata. It is of the most melancholic beauty in the first and third movements straddling a divide between Howells' chamber music of that period and Bax's own viola sonata of 1922. A contemporary madness plays over the scherzo. The passion of the times boils over in the finale but ultimately subsides into profound resignation and consolation. The two instruments have roles primus inter pares and this is further signified by the title which is sonata for piano and viola. It is dedicated to Milhaud who premiered it in Paris in 1915 with Jeanne Herscher-Clément.
 
Les Paysages et Marines is a sequence of twelve often gentle pieces, none longer than 2:23 and many much shorter. It was originally for piano solo. The present chamber ensemble version was made in the last year of Koechlin's life - a sentimental journey no doubt. These encompass the restful, the smiling and the easygoing with a 'swing', a subtle affection in the manner of Debussy but always unclouded: paragons of instrumental clarity. Le chant du chèvrier is predictably Pan-like and classical. Koechlin effortlessly crystallises mood and ambience.
 
Both L'Ancienne maison de campagne and Quatre Nouvelles Sonatines relate to childhood but from the vantage point of adulthood. L'Ancienne maison de campagne is a set of thirteen pieces each titled. Only La Vieille Fontaine makes free with stark ringing Pierrot-style cut-glass discords.  The other pieces mix memories of long distant piano lessons, the clip of folksong, the sway of lapping impressionism (as in En ramant sur le lac) - all sharply etched moods. For me the most impressive of this vivid cycle is the tolling unshaded gleam of Les Collines et la vie tranquille where a Mediterranean warmth slows the pulse almost as much as the equally strong Reliques de deuil.
 
Then come the four Nouvelles sonatines. Folksy - even pretty - dances alternate with echoing shards of 18th century figuration - as in the finale of sonatine 3. Often more reflective material is used with the composer delighting in slow chordal decay and a slightly quicker-paced right-hand melodic line. Koechlin's mastery with material related to popular and local sources is comparable with that of another fine composer, Ronald Stevenson. These four little sonatas are innocent yet far from simple-minded pieces.
 
CD2 ends with the Danse Lente from Danses pour Ginger - yes another film tribute to go with so many others; this time to Ginger Rogers. The Danse is one of five pieces written when having written to Lilian Harvey she showed no interest whatsoever in his music. The Danse Lente has the honeyed and unhurriedly mellifluous tread of Satie's Gymnopédies and of Ravel's Mère l'Oye. Here is a discovery awaiting the seeker after atmospheric music for television or film productions.
 
The two sets of L'Album de Lilian date from 1934 and 1935. These are phantasmal, warmly bathed fantasies, curvaceous: lush without cloying. Most are inspired by Lilian Harvey's films eleven of which are alluded to. None of the individual movements last more than five minutes and most less than two.  The First Set is almost ecstatically expressed - a revelling in delight. The only nightmare discontinuity comes with a lurch and a grating gear-change in the harshest of discords in Pleurs. Its arrival is preceded by music of melting beauty variously allocated between piano solo, piano with flute and soprano with flute and piano. And yet the final piece - just after Pleurs - returns to delight and to the easy curve characteristic of Poulenc's most accessible and irresistibly sentimental songs. It sounds as if it might have escaped from operetta. The preceding pieces are frankly heart-warming. Several use the soprano for vocalise, leaving the impression of Bliss's Rhapsody and of comparable pieces by Koechlin's young protégé, Darius Milhaud. What an impression the film actress Lilian Harvey must have made on this 67 year old composer to have drawn from him such music!   The second Lilian set runs to eight pieces - there are nine in the first – and is not as sentimental as the first.. Once again the various pieces deploy different permutations of instruments.  The second piece Habanera Creole gives us a very impressionistic slant on a Cuban evening. Barcarolle Monégasque is a lilting chiming seascape falling away into the silence of distance. La Voyage Chimérique sounds a wild note - the song of satyrs and Pan worship. This conveys a world as strange and distant as Holst's Humbert Wolfe song Betelgeuse. Yet more otherworldly is the Sicilenne de Rêve for harpsichord and onde martenot - the latter an instrument also much favoured by Jolivet. The ethereal ondes contrasts with gentle asides from the harpsichord.  Les jeu de Clown is a miniature for grotesques with a touch of the dissonance encountered in Pleurs. Le Prière de l'Homme is reverential, slow stepping, concordant, a barely moving cortège through some hallowed sacred place.
 
Vers le soleil is a suite for Ondes Martenot solo. The banal and ululating potential of the instrument is kept under control with an intriguing armoury of crooning nostalgia and ethereal piping. This seven movement suite was written in 1939 on the sea voyage back from Morocco to France. It only suffers from irritating gurgling - in the manic manner of the score for Forbidden Planet - in the unnamed piece (tr. 22). From Les Sirènes with its eerie crooning to John Foulds' almost contemporaneous Lyra Celtica (vocalising soprano and orchestra) is but a very short step. The Final piece bids the listener a fond and brief farewell with more supernal piping.
 
CD3 closes with the subdued lamenting of Stèle funéraire for three flutes à tour de rôle. This is an elegy for Koechlin's friend, Paul Dommel. It was written in the last year of the composer's life. The ever-sensitive flautist Philippe Racine in succession plays alto flute in G, piccolo, bass flute and back to alto flute. It is for most of its duration profoundly subdued.
 
The notes to this set are by Michel Fleury and Philippe Racine – yes, the flautist. Each emphasises the role that beauty and dreams play in this music as well as providing us with the usual factual context.
 
The booklet provides the sung text of the welcome and farewell songs from the first set of L'Album de Lilian.
 
Koechlin is gradually emerging into the sunlight and his subtle, sensitive and masterly music can well stand the exposure. This three disc set at Accord’s economic price – distributed by Discovery in the UK - merits the attention of all Koechlin fans who missed the CDs when issued individually. It will also please those coming to the composer for the first time.
 
Rob Barnett
 

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